The Walking Dead celebrates 10 years of TV history on October 31, 2020. In celebration of this historic milestone, we I nterviewed several actors who have participated in the show over the years. These interviews started to be published in early September and run until the end of October, are being launched daily. When we will end with a big surprise that we prepared exclusively and with great affection for the fans.
Our guest today is Juan Gabriel Pareja, who played Morales during seasons 1 and 8. The actor told us about his fantastic participation in season 1 and about his return in season 8, about his character’s first name, about his participation in The Mist and much more.
Without further ado, check out our exclusive interview with Juan Gabriel Pareja:
First of all, we’re really happy to get to talk to you during this important moment for The Walking Dead. Not every show on TV gets to its 10th season. Your character was created exclusively for the show. How was the process of audition? Did it feel the same to get the part for the first time and to be invited back for the 8th season?
Juan Gabriel Pareja: Yes, thank you. What an incredible milestone indeed. A very big congratulations to absolutely everyone who has contributed to the show’s incredible success over the years. The initial audition for Season 1 came shortly after I had moved to Los Angeles from my hometown of Houston, Texas. I had acted in a number of films in that region in my early years, one of which was Frank Darabont’s ‘The Mist’, based on the short story by Stephen King. I shot for 6 weeks and it was there on that set that I first met and worked with Frank Darabont, Laurie Holden, Jeffrey DeMunn, and Melissa McBride. Long story short, I had just arrived in LA and was working for the US Census at the time to help make ends meet while I figured out how I was going to survive in Los Angeles, when I got a call from my old agent in Houston. They said Frank Darabont is doing a new show in Atlanta, he remembers you from The Mist, and has a part that he thinks you’d be great for. Could I please send in a taped audition? I said, “Of course!”, recorded the audition on my phone and sent it in. Next thing I know, I got offered the part and made my way out to Atlanta to shoot Season 1.
The second time around was a bit different but the call caught me equally by surprise. I was leaving some audition and saw I had missed a call. When I checked the voicemail, it was pretty much an initial effort to reach out to test the waters to see if there may be interest for a return. As you can imagine I was thrilled at the possibility and called back to say that I would definitely be interested. That being said, nothing was set in stone, and, if I remember correctly, it was left as a possibility that might develop in a couple month’s time, but with no promises. But I was very excited at the prospect nonetheless.
Every time someone talks about Morales they always call him by his last name. Does your character even have a first name? Is there anything you know about him that wasn’t on the show, about his background or the time he was missing?
Juan Gabriel Pareja: I mean, sure, of course he’s got to have a first name. But you’re right, I don’t think anywhere in any of the scripts is there a mention of Morales’ first name. If I remember correctly, I think at one point early on I may have decided that Morales’ first name was Francisco (an homage to my own father, Juan Francisco) One thing I remember, is that originally, Morales had no family. I was somewhat taken by surprise when I showed up to the table read and realized that the character had been given a family, which I thought, added a really nice dynamic to the show and my character’s story and motivation. At that point in the show we were one of the only few families that were intact for this group, along with Rick’s reunited family, and Carol and Ed’s abusive marriage.
Earlier this year, on Twitter, you said the scene shot in the department store, on the first season episode “Guts”, in which you first appeared, made you sick. How was it to shoot after this awful feeling and did any other moment on the show made you feel like this again?
Juan Gabriel Pareja: Oh it was fine, really. It was a momentary gross out and gag reflex at the smell and sound and buildup of the moment. And that episode was kind of a peak for me in the sense of it being the episode that was the grossest and where we were practically swimming in guts, which is why the episode is called, “Guts” There was just so much of it, and in no other episode was I forced to deal with that much gore up close.
Was there any funny moments in your returning episode? How was it to work with Norman Reedus and Andrew Lincoln again?
Juan Gabriel Pareja: To be honest, things were moving at a pretty quick pace. There were some weather issues that caused a last minute reschedule of our shooting order and there really wasn’t much opportunity to goof off. It was great to see Andy and Norman again. They are always class acts and were very kind in welcoming me back. Incredibly talented, the both of them, it was fun to be able to play with them again, even if briefly.
One of the greatest things about The Walking Dead is how united the fans are. How did they react to your return? I can say the Brazilian fans were thrilled about it, but would like to see you back with the good guys, and for longer!
Juan Gabriel Pareja: Yes, you guys are amazing, The Walking Dead Family fanbase is just the best and never ceases to amaze me. God bless the persistent fans who never relented and kept the Morales dream alive throughout the years, too, as I really think it was the fans who brought Morales back. Years of speculation, and board chats, and videos all asking about Morales eventually reached the powers that be I think, and they eventually gave in, even if just a little bit. I appreciate all the support from the wonderful and amazing fans from Brazil and the enthusiasim you shared for Morales’ return. I also would have loved to have come back with the good guys too, and for longer as well. But I was nevertheless incredibly grateful for the opportunity to play in the world of the Walking Dead once more.
The COVID-19 pandemic affected humanity as a whole, including the entertainment industry. It was a complete shutdown of any kind of fan gatherings, like Comic-Con. Before that, how was it to take part in The Walking Dead conventions?
Juan Gabriel Pareja: Oof, what an incredible year it has been, indeed. I know that, like the U.S., Brazil has been hit particularly hard with the virus. My condolences to all those whose lives and families have suffered loss from this disease. That being said, it is always wonderful to connect with fans who appreciate and share an enthusiasm for your work. It really is a treat to share in that excitement with them and an opportunity to be reminded of just how special The Walking Dead family and fanbase really is. Another highlight of the conventions is that we often get to connect with other cast members that came afterwards and didn’t have a chance to work with while on the show. Once everything passes with Covid-19 I look forward to maybe one day visiting to see the beautiful country of Brazil and meet with all the amazing fans there. 😉
You appeared briefly in Castle, The Mentalist and Hawaii Five-0. Would you like to work full time in an investigative tv show?
Juan Gabriel Pareja: You know I think I would like that quite a bit. Over the years I’ve gotten cast in a number of guest starring spots in those shows, and a number of others as well, like CSI: NY, FBI, Proven Innocent and Chicago Med. I’m incredibly grateful for those opportunities and have for the most part been happy to play whatever parts have come my way. But at the end of the day, I feel like I’m certainly ready to carry the responsibility that comes with that, and would also welcome the stability that would accompany a recurring role on a long running investigative tv show or procedural episodic. It feels like a natural evolution and next step in the career and I hope to see more opportunities like that unfold in the near future.
You were part of the cast of “The Infiltrators”, which was awarded in Sundance in 2019 and was the night opener for the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival. The movie brings a strong message about immigration. How important is this message in the movie to you?
Juan Gabriel Pareja: “The Infiltrators” is an incredibly important film that I can’t recommend enough. It is a remarkable story based on true events surrounding a group of undocumented activists and their fight to infiltrate one of the infamous ICE ‘detention centers’ in Florida. The story occured a number of years ago but it couldn’t be more relevant, as the call for social justice grows louder everyday, especially with the atrocious policies of family separation and children in cages that have plagued this current administration. And I come from a family of immigrants, I was born and raised in a community of immigrants. I grew up seeing how hard the immigrant community works tirelessly, and contributes so dynamically to the societal fabric, and this kind of treatment is simply unconscionable.
If Morales had survived longer on the show, with which characters would you like him to interact more? Is there a cast member you wish you could have worked closely?
Juan Gabriel Pareja: Wow. Well, you know, I had hoped, really, in my heart of hearts, that if they ever brought Morales back, that he would definitely still feel an allegiance to his original group. I loved working with Andy, and Melissa, and Norman, and along with Morales, their characters were all part of the original gang back in Atlanta. And there was a magic, I think, a chemistry, during those early seasons, what was hard to replicate in subsequent seasons. I was really hoping that Morales would return with a longer arc and that he would have had more of an opportunity to reconnect with the original group, and with Rick, in particular.
Going back to the past, we wanted to talk a bit about The Mist. How was it to work with Frank Darabont in the movie? Did you get to know him and other The Walking Dead cast members during the movie or only when you guys got together on the show?
Juan Gabriel Pareja: That was a special time when we were shooting The Mist, because it was such an ensemble film. We were all filming in the grocery store for 6 weeks, and I haven’t really had another opportunity where a large ensemble was all shooting together for an extended period other than The Walking Dead. That being said, it was very early on in my career, and I have to confess that I was a bit shy then. It was a little intimidating to be working alongside such established greats like Marcia Gay Harden and Thomas Jane, Andre Braugher, Toby Jones, Jeffrey DeMunn, Frances Sternhagen, William Sadler, etc. And there was a lot going on with all the moving pieces, so it was a very focused set. With so many high level professional veterans involved, there wasn’t a lot of goofing around. There also wasn’t any micromanaging or too much direction from Frank. I think he trusted the people he cast and let them play. I’ve heard it said that 90%of directing is in the casting. So at the end of the day, the initial interactions were light and casual and mostly professional, and I didn’t get to know them better until we all were reunited by Frank on the set of The Walking Dead. Then, obviously, during that first season, we all got to spend a bit more time together as a group and we were able to get to know each other more. Also, I don’t know if you know this, but I also played a character named Morales in that film.
The Walking Dead tv show decided to part ways with the comic book regarding some characters. The fact that Morales wasn’t on the comics interfered with your work in any way to build the character?
Juan Gabriel Pareja: I don’t think so. I mean it may have been nice to have something to reference and to have an idea of what to expect from your character’s storyline, but as you said, there are no guarantees and one never knows where the show will deviate from the comics. If anything, I think it really opens one up to explore any number of possibilities and not be limited by any established characteristics. As an actor you always have to take whatever you are given and use it as a launching board to then make your own decisions and discover your motivations.
Still talking about fate, if you could change the script, would you give a different ending for Morales? Would he still be alive? How do you picture Morales in the present day story? How and where would he fit?
Juan Gabriel Pareja: Ha ha ha. Well, as I said before, I think I definitely would have envisioned a different ending for Morales. A different return with a more developed arc. One that, if still managed to start down the road of villainy and affiliation with The Saviors, would eventually culminate in a hero narrative where he comes back to the original group to save them in a bind, and perhaps give himself over in a glorious moment of redemptive sacrifice. And now that they have announced that The Walking Dead will be ending after an extended Season 11, and that they plan to come back around and explore certain characters and storylines in greater detail in spinoff variations, I think that there is a tremendous opportunity to take a deeper dive into the Morales timeline and the events that unfolded to bring him back, face to face with Rick Grimes, 8 seasons later.
If you had to choose one cast member to work with again, who would you pick? Why?
Juan Gabriel Pareja: I have a very high esteem of all of my castmates from the show, and would be delighted to work with any of them again. It really is a remarkable group of talented artists who have come together, with all of their contributions, to create a globally epic show that has become a cultural phenomenon the world over. The show will forever be a part of our collective cultural history, and that is thanks to the incredible talent involved along with the unmatched enthusiasm from such a loyal fanbase. That being said, I think, like so many fans who have been with the show from the very beginning, that Andy Lincoln will always hold a special place. He’s a class act through and through, a true gentleman and generous thespian who led by example with a quiet gentle energy of admirable commitment to excellence.
If instead of a COVID-19 pandemic we were going through a zombie apocalypse, what lesson from the show would you use to survive?
Juan Gabriel Pareja: Don’t be stupid! Lol! Learn to survive in the wild. Load up on weapons and know how to use them, and most importantly, connect yourself to a solid community of like minded badasses.
To wrap it up: we know the pandemic postponed a lot of projects and The Walking Dead fans are still suffering for the season finale. How did it affect you? Were any of your projects postponed? How have you been taking care of yourself?
Juan Gabriel Pareja: Yeah, everything has pretty much come to a halt. There is still some commercial voiceover work that is happening and I audition pretty regularly for any number of jobs in that market. That film “The Infiltrators” was supposed to have a theatrical release in April but with the shutdown, that didn’t happen, and instead was released digitally. You can stream it here : http://www.infiltratorsfilm.com/The Infiltrators by the way for those that are interested. Other than that, I have been very busy taking care of my two little boys who are 3.5 and 1.5 years old, and that has been a full time job in and of itself. They are a joy 🙂 And I also started to learn the piano recently and am having fun finding moments here and there to practice and make a little music.
Thanks again for your questions and your continued support for Morales and my contributions to the show! Please be sure to follow me on the social media for the latest on any upcoming projects or developments. Thank you and stay safe Brazil!